Elizabeth Cowell is a freelance editor and publishing consultant with over ten years’ experience working with major Australian publishers. She discussed the editing process and the importance of writers’ groups with us recently.
What is your role in the development of a manuscript? As an editor you must have to be very diplomatic at times!
The editor’s role shifts and changes depending on the book and what it needs. For some books I’ve been involved from an early stage, giving the author my thoughts on big-picture questions such as structure and plot. At other times it’s about helping the author to get the smaller details right and finesse the expression. I do try to be as tactful as I can, and I make an effort to comment on the things that made me laugh, or think, or a particularly beautiful phrase, or sections of a work I especially enjoyed, as well as providing constructive advice about the things that might not be working. Sharing your creative work with others takes courage and it’s a privilege to see an author’s work in the early stages. I try to show my respect for that courage in my own work as an editor.
What role do you think writers’ groups play in the development of authors?
Your friends and family are often happy to read your work and give you their response, but they sometimes hold back their criticisms for fear of hurting you. They can also be conservative in their tastes and would sometimes prefer you weren’t writing on a particular subject – or even writing at all. Writers’ groups provide a fantastic safe space where you can receive frank and unflinching opinions of your work from people who will support and encourage you. You can also learn from other writers’ experience, of course – they may well have faced challenges you still have in front of you.
What are some common errors that you see in manuscripts by first-time authors?
One of the most common is trying to squeeze everything you’ve ever wanted to say into your first book. I often find myself suggesting that an author take a scene out of a manuscript and keep it aside until the right book comes along. Another is overcrowding – I once suggested that an author cut nineteen characters from the first draft of a novel, which she did very successfully. If you can kill off a character without too much trouble, it means they weren’t needed in the first place. And many first-time authors tell readers what their characters are thinking or feeling, rather than showing them. ‘Show, don’t tell’ has become something of a writing group cliché, but for good reason, I think.
What can the editing process teach writers?
A good edit will show you what your strengths are as a writer, but it will also show your foibles. Many writers find it painful to be edited because of this, and I think the first reaction to an edit is often a mixture of anger and despair, but once that initial reaction has passed, most people seem to find the process incredibly useful, and often incorporate the feedback from a current edit into their other works in progress. To give a simple example, a close line edit will reveal your writer’s tics – the words, phrases and images you use over and over without knowing it. It helps to know what they are so you can watch out for them in future. (My own tics are overusing the words ‘just’ and ‘a bit’ and ‘perhaps’ – all very useful words when writing an editorial report, but I overdo them a bit.)
Can you tell us a little about your editorial career? Who are some authors that you’ve worked with in your years as an editor?
I started my career working on business and finance books at a small Melbourne publisher and then moved home to Sydney for a position at Random House. The publishers there were wonderful to work with, and some of the highlights of my career so far were there, working on books by Glenda Guest (Siddon Rock), Carol Lefevre (Nights in the Asylum) and Catherine Harris (Like Being a Wife). I also worked on my share of cookbooks and wine guides and true crime titles. My next in-house job was at Murdoch Books, where I commissioned titles for the Pier 9 narrative list, and then I went to Allen & Unwin as senior editor. I’ve been freelance since 2012, mostly working for the bigger Australian trade publishers.
What are the top three books in your to-read pile at the moment?
In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe, which I bought on impulse at Gleebooks last week; The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, because I’m planning a trip to New York; and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, because it’s Ramona Koval’s Monthly book club title for May.
Elizabeth Cowell will be running Fiction Feedback over eight Sunday mornings, commencing 30 June. Places are strictly limited.